Friday, March 23, 2012

'Hunger' Isn't Completely Starved

The Hunger Games, based on the best-selling novel in a trilogy by Suzanne Collins, avoids some of the obvious hazards of teen blockbusters now a days, but has its downfalls as well. Luckily the film has a solid underlying story and a talented actress who leads the film as its heroine.

North America is split into 12 Districts, showcasing the stratification of classes. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a District 12 resident hunts with her best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) to provide for her mother and sister. Once a year the Capitol, an autocratic style of government, holds a Reaping for each District to select one male and female tribute, between the ages of 12 and 18, 24 total, to participate in The Hunger Games, a televised death match. The last one standing wins the game. When Katniss' younger sister is selected from her District, she volunteers and is joined by her fellow male tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) in a fight to the, what is sure to be, their end.

Whether you've read the books or not, this plot should sound familiar to you. It has an uncanny parallel to Kousun Takami's Battle Royale, where a group of children are selected to--yup, you guessed it--fight to the gritty end. However, I won't get into that. Collins has publicly stated she was inspired to write her novel from the Iraq war and American reality TV series, so I'll judge it on its own value. This film delves into some deep social, political, societal, even moral issues and approaches it with a respectful somber tone throughout. There's nothing at all cheerful about this film and you can't help but appreciate how mature it is compared to its teen-franchise predecessor at Summit.

Games aims to be a well crafted teen franchise, but is not without its faults. Some of the editing shots instilled an unwelcome vertigo sensation that left me with more to be desired. This was effective at first, half of the slaughterings occur during the first ten minutes of the Games when tributes are dispatched to retrieve supplies from a cornucopia and a shaky camera technique seems appropriate, but after a while it has ill effect on the film's narration. I found the camera's navigation distracting at times, zooming in for too long and wandering at other times. I think better editing artistry could have been demonstrated here.

However, the film sends some powerful messages about government control, rebellion, our country's obsession with reality TV programs and the grim characterization of what we are willing to do to survive. Yes, there's a love story somewhere in there, but it doesn't in anyway overshadow a solid storyline. Like I mentioned this film avoids some of the obvious hazards of teen blockbusters, but teases us with just enough to keep us satiated. And it doesn't take away from the film's serious tone and gruesome realities. Director and screenwriter Gary Ross (Pleasantville) is able to maintain this tone throughout and never attempts to force feed us how we should feel. In one scene, a tribute dies and many a poor-tasted directors would have attempted to milk every moment for dramatic effect, but here Ross illustrates control. He's aware some of the story telling lies in not trying to over sell everything. This scene results in some beautiful camera work, cinematography and music.

The cinematography by Tom Stern was nice at times, but often dampened by some of the obvious visual effects. It makes you wonder where the film's reported $100,000 million budget went to. Also, the music by T-Bone Burnett (Crazy Heart) and James Newton Howard (The Dark Knight) was subtle and didn't try to manipulate our emotions by overpowering us with a heavy score.

The real selling strategy though is Lawrence (Winter's Bone). She is both hard and soft faced when appropriate in the film. Katniss isn't your average in-distress fictional character, nor is she a slaughtering vigilante. She's just a girl trying to stay alive and Lawrence effortlessly taps into the human being element of her character. As the protagonist, she is able to carry the entire film without wearing us down and makes it easy to sympathize with her.

As a fan of the series I can say I'm both happy and slightly disappointed (but this is expected). The film's first hour focuses too long on building up the hype of the Game and felt incredibly rushed, again this is expected, but luckily a solid script and story made up for it. Hutcherson (The Kids Are All Right) would not have been my first pick for Peeta (or second, or third) but pleasantly surprised me. He channels his character very well and reminded me of how versatile of an actor he is. My other critique is Woody Harrelson's character Haymitch. He managed a decent portrayal of the alcoholic mentor to Katniss and Peeta but felt he was missing some of his humorous lines from the book. Ultimately, it's a great story and although the film tried to stretch an entire book into two and a half hours, I think it captured some of the more pivotal moments, making this a powerful film and statement of what to expect from these type of films in the future.

Rating: B-

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